Appreciating Bill Freehan

Yesterday, I was doing some All-Star Game research. In doing so, I came across the name of Bill Freehan, and was surprised to find that he started for the American League at catcher for seven straight years. Doing some more digging, I realized he was essentially the best catcher of whom I had never heard. The classic “whole is greater than the sum of his parts” player, there wasn’t anything that Freehan did poorly.

Back in the days before the draft, the rules for players signing was a bit looser than it was today, and that allowed Freehan to get both a taste of the college life and start his career early. He went to the University of Michigan for one year, where he played both baseball and football. However, when the Tigers offered him a $100,000 signing bonus to join the pro ranks, he took it — even though his father allegedly wouldn’t let him have it until after he graduated college in 1966. Freehan actually worked his way into four games as a 19-year-old, though he would spend his age-20 season in Triple-A. That would be it for his minor league career however, as he worked into a platoon role in ’63 at the tender age of 21, and when the Tigers traded former Orioles stalwart Gus Triandos to the Phillies following the season, Freehan seized control of the job, and didn’t let it go for 12 seasons.

During that time, Freehan was pretty durable. From 1964-1975, only Joe Torre donned the tools of ignorance more frequently than did Freehan. He got things started with a bang in ’64, when he hit .300/.350/.462, with 18 homers, 14 doubles and amazingly, eight triples. Since 1947, only six catchers have hit more triples in a season than Freehan did in ’64. He would never hit more than five in any successive season, but he did chip in a few each season, and since 1947 only 16 catchers have more career triples than Freehan’s 35. For his troubles in ’64, he made the American League All-Star team as the only reserve catcher, and also placed seventh in the Most Valuable Player Award voting. In other words, he had arrived.

While he regressed a great deal of the plate in 1965, his defense was recognized, as Freehan would win the first of his five consecutive Gold Gloves. When he was awarded his fourth following the 1968 season, it moved him past Sherm Lollar for the all-time lead at the catching position, and no one would pass him until Jim Sundberg took home his sixth in 1981. To this day, only four players have more Gold Gloves as a catcher — Ivan Rodriguez, Johnny Bench, Bob Boone and Sundberg — although there’s a good chance that Yadier Molina also passes him in the next year or two.

His offense didn’t pick up any in ’66, but he did most of his damage in the first half, and was the AL’s starter at catcher in the All-Star Game for the first time. He would hold this honor for seven straight seasons until some guy named Carlton Fisk wrestled the honor away from him in ’73. This might not sound like much, but it’s pretty rare for a player to start the All-Star Game at the same position for the same league in a number of consecutive seasons. Only 30 players have ever done this in five or more consecutive years, and only eight players have done so more than Freehan. Now, it might have been a touch easier for Freehan to pull this off thanks to the general dearth of good catchers throughout the history of the game, but Freehan was also very clearly the best catcher in the AL during that period of time:

Player WAR
Bill Freehan 28.4
Thurman Munson 12.5
Duke Sims 11.3

Part of Freehan’s effectiveness was that he did most everything well. In nearly every season of his career, he had above-average walk and strikeout rates. The same is true from a power standpoint, as his ISO was nearly always better than the league average — particularly in 1968, when he posted a .191 ISO compared to a .104 league average. You might remember ’68 as the year of the pitcher, but Freehan was not intimidated. That season he posted his career bests in homers, ISO and wRC+, and along with Denny McLain, Jim Northrup and Willie Horton helped lead the Tigers to their third World Series triumph. Freehan actually just edged McLain for the team lead in WAR.

Freehan was an asset behind the plate as well. Defensive metrics for catchers are tricky, but using what we have compared to the other catchers of his era, we see that Freehan ranks among the best. Looking at the ‘60’s and ‘70’s (1960-1979 to be precise), we find 108 qualified catchers. Among them, Freehan’s 27 Fld ranks 14th. And while most catchers are a blight on the bases, Freehan was never a lead weight himself. His -1.2 BsR ranks 107th out of 334 qualified catchers since 1947. Not great mind you, but certainly not awful.

Overall, Freehan posted 44.8 WAR in his career. That’s good enough for 16th all-time among catchers, and 14th all-time on the Tigers overall (best among Tigers’ catchers, 10th-best among Tigers’ position players). Freehan also penned a book on catching entitled “Behind The Mask,” and tutored at least two future big league catchers in Lance Parrish and Mike Matheny, the latter of whom he molded while coaching Michigan’s baseball team. That’s not just a heck of a career, that’s a heck of a life. Freehan may not warrant mention when discussions turn to who was the greatest catcher of all-time, but he was certainly very good for a very long time.

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Paul Swydan is the managing editor of The Hardball Times and a writer and editor for FanGraphs. He has written for the Boston Globe, ESPN MLB Insider and ESPN the Magazine, among others. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan.

20 Responses to “Appreciating Bill Freehan”

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  1. I always thought the Tigers should’ve given him a statue at Comerica. He fits all the apparent criteria – local kid, career Tiger, best Tiger at his position – except for the Hall of Fame. Then again, Willie Horton has one and he didn’t make the Hall either. I wouldn’t be surprised if when the decision was being made, the final statue came down to Horton and Freehan and the Tigers decided Detroit should give a nod to the city’s African American heritage.

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    • Detroit Michael says:

      Horton also played an iconic role during the 1967 riots and has been tangentially involved in the Tigers’ front office under Mike Ilitch’s ownership.

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  2. Mr Punch says:

    Bill Freehan was a very good player, but the seven All-Star starts and the Gold Gloves are a bit deceptive – because all the other AL catchers of the time were just awful. That includes the guys who backed him up on those All Star teams. Some of them were pretty much dumped after their AS seasons – have a look at Gerry Moses, 1970. Freehan is sort of the Jack Morris of catchers.

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    • Wobatus says:

      Of course, that means he was all the more valuable, considering the position scarcity. At the beginning of his career there was Elston Howard, and near the end starting around ’72 he was fending off Munson and Fisk. And a guy named Ray Fosse was pretty good in 1970 but he was never the same after that all-star game. Freehan was pretty good. About the level of Posada. Speaking of Posada, who knew he was such a whiskey fiend (I’m speaking of the ads I keep see popping up with him pitching Johnnie Walker I think)?

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    • Detroit Michael says:

      During much of Freehan’s career, the NL was the stronger league both overall and it terms of catchers. That also explains it.

      Nice guy too. A cousin of mine grew up near his family.

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  3. Polka says:

    Yeah, Bill is pretty much a Detroit legend on some good teams, but like you stated, unheard of unless the real baseball efficionados followed! I like reading good articles about good guys, players and Wolverines!

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    • Balthazar says:

      I appreciate the attention for Freehan here. Not only was he an outstanding player relative to the league in his day, and essential to his team’s success, he’s the kind of player who, to me, the game is really all about. Yeah, It’s a lot of fun to watch the physical freaks who get to the heights of all time greats. Most people can’t do what they do. But there are many solid, all-around pros in baseball who show up, and in the cliche but accurate phrase, play the game hard and right. As a team sport, you just don’t win without some guys like Bill Freehan on your squad. We should all pay a bit more attention to the guys like this of the present day, and maybe a bit _less_ attention to some Mr. Supermojo of the hour launching absurd blasts. All-around pros are the bedrock of the game, in another cliche, but for me it’s the truth.

      An interesting tangential post to consider would be, “Who are ten players in the game as of 2013 who would fit the kind of mould presented here?” Not necessarily at catcher, though Yaider Molina certainly does come to mind. Youkilis maybe? Biggio in his time, though of course he’s retired. It’s not as easy to answer the question as it seems. Someone good enough to impact his team’s games week in and week out yet still perhaps just below a Hall of Fame peak during their best years. Jimmy Rolllins?? Hmm.

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  4. KC Ron says:

    Freehan was an 11 time all-star and the unquestioned vocal leader on those Tigers teams. The great Al Kaline was a team leader by example, Freehan had some damn good numbers in that pitchers’ era.
    At this point in time, Freehan could be doing better health wise. He was a rock behind the plate.

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    • Ron Stoppenhagen says:

      KC, what’s up with Bill’s health? He was my childhood hero and always so strong and healthy.

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      • Tom says:

        From what I understand, he has dementia or alzheimer’s. I can’t remember which. My favorite Tiger of all time.

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  5. John in Cleveland says:

    I grew up on the 60’s Tigers and Freehan was one of my favorites I still have a Freehan bat they gave away at bat day. You didn’t mention his numbers for throwing out baserunners but if my memory serves he was pretty decent at that too. Thanks for this piece. It brought back good memories.

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  6. ttnorm says:

    “That season he posted his career bests in homers, ISO and wRC+, and along with Denny McLain, Jim Northrup and Willie Horton helped lead the Tigers to their third World Series triumph.” A guy named Kaline had a pretty big world series as well.

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    • Jude says:

      Author: “[in 1968] along with Denny McLain, Jim Northrup and Willie Horton, [Freehan] helped lead the Tigers to their third World Series triumph.”

      ttnorm: “A guy named Kaline had a pretty big world series as well.”

      And, especially when talking World Series, the key performances were by the Series MVP, Mickey Lolich. Three victories, the final one against the formidable Bob Gibson coming with two days rest. And, if we are talking the entire season, then one must mention Gates Brown, Norm Cash, Mickey Stanley, John Hiller, Dick McAuliffe, Earl Wilson, etc., etc.

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  7. SJW says:

    Freehan was one of the best catchers of his era. The fact that the AL had poor catchers then is not his fault. He is extremely under rated. Thanks for an excellent article on a true star of the game.

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  8. Ben Hall says:

    Doesn’t really matter, but you say state, “When he was awarded his fourth following the 1968 season, it moved him past Sherm Lollar for the all-time lead at the catching position, and no one would pass him until Jim Sundberg took home his sixth in 1981.” Bench got his sixth in 1973.

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  9. Ron Stoppenhagen says:

    Thank you for this wonderful article! Freehan was my childhood hero.

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  10. ggoblue says:

    He was elected to those all-star games by his peers. Fans didn’t mess up the voting back then.

    He belongs in the hall of fame.

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  11. Eric says:

    Freehan was my favorite Tiger – my childhood hero. Yes, he has Alzheimers from what I understand – he is supposedly not doing well. I still have my old catchers glove that he signed one day at Livonia Mall. Bill is & always will be my ultimate Tiger.

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  12. Cindy says:

    From the first game I went to I thought he was the best catcher. Very fan friendly. He also played basketball in the off season with some of the other tigers. Mr Freehan will always be my hero. Still wear his number 11 uniform shirt to the ball games. Can’t understand why he isn’t in the hall of fame.

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